After WannaCry, is ransomware in retreat?

Credit: Leremy |

WannaCry was considered biggest and most high-profile ransomware attack in modern cybersecurity history. Across the world, it garnered headlines and stern warnings. All told, affected over 250,000 computers and over 100,000 organizations across 150 countries.

While the metaphorical “threat-level” associated with Wannacry largely been eclipsed in recent months by other major security vulnerabilities like Spectre and Krack, you have to wonder how much of an impact that a global-scale ransomware attack like WannaCry of Petya will have in the long-run.

In the wake of these massive cybersecurity attacks, many tech journalists and infosec professionals called it a wake-up call to organizations, business and individuals.

‘Fix your lax cybersecurity practices or this will probably happen to you.’

But was that call heard? After Wannacry, is the world finally ready to adapt and adopt better protections against these kinds of cybersecurity threats? After the biggest attack to date, is ransomware in retreat?

At this stage, it’s hard to tell. However, there are some positive signs out there. McAfee Labs say while they total ransomware grow 56% over the past four quarters, they also saw the number of ransomware payments fall over the last year.  In addition, during the second half of 2017, they also saw the total number of ransomware families fall by almost 50%.

Unfortunately, these trends comes with a caveat.

Credit: Benjawan Sittidech |

Citing “improved system backup efforts, free decryption tools, greater user and organisational awareness, and the collaborative actions of industry alliances such as and the Cyber Threat Alliance,” McAfee say that “these successes are forcing attackers to pivot to high-value ransomware targets, such as victims with the capacity to pay greater sums, and new devices lacking comparable vendor, industry, and educational action.”

To summarize, the approach of the criminals behind these kinds of ransomware attacks has shifted from quantity of targets to quality of targets.

Bogdan Botezatu, senior e-threat analyst from Bitdefender, told PC World that “Yes, targeted commercial threats have become the norm. Ransomware is one of the categories of malware that have gone a long way. If initially ransomware was indiscriminately spread in a shotgun style, more and more ransomware gangs look for potential wealthy targets (such as companies), manually infiltrate them (via complex attacks against the remote desktop protocol or using stolen TeamViewer credentials, for instance), starts an infection in the network, then lets the malware move laterally. Troldesh and GlobeImposter are two of the families of ransomware built to target selected victims.”

Of course, not everyone agrees that the tide of malware has subsided. In Malwarebytes’ Cybercrime Tactics and Techniques: 2017 State of Malware Report, they say that “when we look at the entire year, we can see that, statistically, this was a banner year for ransomware. According to telemetry gathered from Malwarebytes products, business and consumer ransomware detections have increased 90 and 93 percent, respectively, in 2017. This is largely because of families like WannaCry, Locky, Cerber, and GlobeImposter. In fact, the monthly rate of ransomware attacks against businesses increased up to 10 times the rate of 2016.”

Far from in-retreat, some vendors warn that ransomware makers are on the cusp of bold new opportunities in the consumer space. Specifically, they say that smartphones will be targeted.

In the past, “Cloud backups on these devices have made them relatively free from traditional ransomware attacks. McAfee predicts that attackers will instead try to “brick” the phones, making them unusable unless a ransom payment is sent to restore them.”

Symantec echo many of the same concerns, saying that the “gold-rush mentality” around ransomware has “contributed to the rise of Ransomware-As-A-Service and other specializations in the cyber criminal underworld.”

Credit: Kristina Kostova |

“These specialists are now looking to expand their attack reach by exploiting the massive increase in expensive connected home devices. Users are generally not aware of the threats to Smart TVs, smart toys and other smart appliances, making them an attractive target for cyber criminals.”

Speaking to PC World, Trend Micro’s Dr. Jonathan Oliver says that “we’ve seen a decline in the mass commodity ransomware - a modest decline. We’ve seen a big increase, just at the moment, in commodity coin miners but, at the same time, you’ve seen no abatement or maybe an increase in ransomware going after quality targets where they can do a big extortion.”

Across the board, the forces behind such cyber-security hazards as Wannacry have hardly been daunted by the global response. Rather, they seem to have taken it as a challenge. Thankfully, many of the institutions hit hardest by Wannacry have wised up and upgraded their security measures in response. Right?

Again, it’s difficult to say but early indicators don’t inspire a lot of confidence here.

Speaking to PC World, Trend Micro’s Dr. Jonathan Oliver says that “you’re seeing a slow progression towards more-preparedness across the entire world”

Comparing the evolution of cybersecurity standards to the evolution of car and plane safety standards, “the problem is that IT and computers change so rapidly that we don’t have that generation - 25 years - to bake in all the safety measures throughout society”

“But we’re starting to.”

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Fergus Halliday
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